Reading for February, 2005

February is the shortest month.
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. #17 on the Modern Library list. A haunting story full of tragedy. Some amazing characterizations, where you get to see the character from both the inside and the outside.

I, Claudius by Robert Graves. #14 on the Modern Library list. There is a second book by Graves which concludes the story of Claudius’s reign in ancient Rome, but only the first book is on the list. The story can be agonizing at times, with characters (based on historic figures) sharing names across generations, and male and female versions of the same name. Extremely well crafted; Claudius’s grandmother Livia is presented as a formidable nemesis, but in the end she proves to be an astute politician in contrast to those who followed.
Books in progress:
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck. You know, I thought this book was on the Modern Library list, but I guess it isn’t. But it was one of Oprah’s Book Club selections from 2004. I’m about 2/3 done, it isn’t a particularly exciting story, but it has a good structure, following Wang Lung as he views the wealthy from a position of poverty, then becomes wealthy and loses his perspective on poverty.
The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. A non-fiction book about superstring theory. I heard Greene doing an interview on NPR a few weeks ago, and he used a terrible analogy — something to do with the behavior of shapes depending on their spatial geometry, which he compared to the sound of different notes from a French horn being due to the shape of the horn’s pipes. This analogy was incorrect, in that the sound of a note is due to the length of pipe through which the air travels, and has nothing to do with how bendy the pipe is. I decided to pick up one of his books and learn a little bit about superstring theory, which Greene and other physicists have been pushing for the past few years as the Big Answer for Everything. But in this book Greene doesn’t pull off a convincing case, especially when he argues thusly: “Although Einstein felt that this was a distasteful feature of our modern understanding, and you may agree, it certainly appears to be a fact. Let’s accept it.” (p. 201) As science writing goes, it is readable but not entertaining.
Abandoned books:
I’ve given up on Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children. I don’t have any interest in these characters.
The Elementary Particles by Michel Houellebecq, translated by Frank Wynne. Andrew recommended this author last month. I read the first 100 pages, after which I lost all curiosity or interest in the story. The writing is full of jarring transitions, a narrative passage will be interrupted by pseduo-technical commentary about nature and survival. I say, if you want to write a story about peripheral characters, write that story and stop giving me excuses for why the characters are so thinly written.
On the shelf:
The Glass Hammer by K.W. Jeter. I’ve read this one before, it is a deceptive story about art and obsession, set in a future where smugglers drive from Arizona to California and the race is broadcast as a reality TV show.
Our Own Devices by Edward Tenner.
Fool’s Errand by Robin Hobb.

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